Celebrating Emiliano Salvador and his Musical Legacy

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Emiliano Salvador

Note from the Editor: On August 19, 1951, Emiliano Salvador was born in Puerto Padre, a municipality and city in the Las Tunas Province of Cuba. On a day like today, he would be celebrating his 60th birthday. One of the most influencial musicians of his generation in Cuba, Emiliano Salvador is revered as a giant around the world. His pianistic vision permeates and embodies Cuban music and Afro-Cuban jazz.

10 years ago, Chico Alvarez Peraza wrote this article, filling up a void in the online world. There was almost nothing written about Emiliano on the World Wide Web. As a tribute to his memory, and as a celebration of his life and his musical legacy, we now present an updated version of that article written in July of 2001. Read on and enjoy!

Nueva Vision: Emiliano Salvador

Talk to anyone about Cuban piano players and invariably the name EMILIANO SALVADOR will pop up. Most will agree that Emiliano was in a class by himself. His personality and individualism as a soloist were strong enough to assure immediate recognition, yet he was never obtrusive to the point of using gimmicks. He was a brilliant pianist, composer and arranger, and a seminal figure in the resurgence of Latin jazz, a style that had long ago been given up for dead. He was also a team player who considered himself an integral part of the whole, as evidenced by his initial release for EGREM, “Nueva Vision”. For this historic 1979 recording session, Emiliano united 17 of the island’s top musicians, including vocalists Bobby Carcassés and Pablito Milanés, guitarist Ahmed Barroso and horn players Paquito D’Rivera (alto and soprano sax), Arturo Sandoval and Jorge Varona (trumpets), who were all members of the Irakere band. And for that very special “ethnic” flavor or “sabor cubano” he also included in the line-up Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Alberto Lara and Andrés Castro on trumpets. Andrés, by the way, was one of the founding members of the famed Orquesta de Los Hermanos Castro. Trombonist Lázaro González was also on hand, as well as bassist Jorge Reyes and percussionists Frank Bejerano, Panchito Bejerano, Amadito Valdés, Roberto García and Rolando Valdés. Even more impressive than the personnel on this album was the material. Emiliano wrote all of the tunes except “Son De La Loma” and “Convergencia”, two “oldies” from the venerable Cuban Book of Son. His unique approach to arranging revitalized these standards, transforming them into fresh versions. No arranger had ever given these classics such a unique treatment before, nor has anyone done so since then.

Some of the musicians which I’ve interviewed, and who where present during these historic sessions have commented that Emiliano transformed the whole project into a labor of love and that he actually did have a “Nueva Visión”. To him, the title was not merely a commercial term, nor was it in any way an abstract idea but a “new vision” as to where jazz, and particularly Cuban jazz was headed. Remember that this was 1979, a time when the Fania records company was at its height and “disco” music was all the rage. Emiliano Salvador, like others on the island of Cuba, and even some ambitious rebels here in New York, were all sharing that same “vision.”

The seeds for the musical revolution had been sown as early as 1974, first with Chucho Valdés and Irakere in Cuba and then in New York with Cortijo Y Su Máquina del Tiempo. (Also worthy of mention is one Mr. Jorge Millet, who labored along these same lines on the neighboring island of Puerto Rico). Yet, it would be a whole decade and a half before this concept would begin to flourish. Meanwhile, “salsa erotica” (aka “salsa romantica”) and merengue were just beginning to dominate the airwaves in New York, Puerto Rico and Miami, and innovative ideas such as those that Emiliano had recorded were just not “happening” commercially. The so-called “salsa” music that was being played and recorded locally had grown stale and insipid, and the only real “alternative” to the stagnant “commercial” sound that was saturating the market was coming from the SAR/Guajiro label, a company out of New York which was owned by three Cuban entrepreneurs, one of them being Roberto Torres, a noteworthy sonero from Güines. With the help of veteran engineer Jon Fausty, Torres turned out many fine recordings by the cream of New York-based Cuban musicians. The SAR catalog catered mainly to die-hard followers of the “típico” sound, a style that was reminiscent of the pre-Castro era. Although they achieved moderate success stateside, their biggest revenues came from West Africa and South America. Musically, SAR did not compete with Fania, but the fledgling empire may have perceived them as a potential threat, and so the record wars began. SAR began to acquire many artists that had fallen out of favor with Fania, and they inevitably created their own all-star group as well. Coincidentally, during the time that the SAR All-Stars were beginning to carve a niche for themselves the popularity of the Fania All-Stars began to wane. It was a power struggle, for sure. But that was just on the local scene, or was it?

Meanwhile, back in Cuba, the state-owned label Areito was busy putting together its own all-star group, Las Estrellas De Areito. Although Areito did not see SAR as a threat (musically speaking that is), they did acknowledge the fact that SAR’s success with cover versions of the old Cuban tunes was somehow overshadowing them. So they quickly began to play “catch up”. They gathered the cream of the crop, pulled out the old charts and the competition was on. Whatever your preference may have been, one thing was for sure; the old Cuban “sound” was now becoming more and more popular worldwide. Areito saw SAR’s popularity as a window of opportunity. Without realizing it, the SAR label had opened the doors for many of Cuba’s veteran performers, many of which had been languishing in obscurity, forgotten outside of Cuba. That was the music scene midway through the nineteen-eighties. While veteran Cuban musicians in both the U.S.A. and Cuba were trying to revive the “old sound”, a whole new generation was busy reinventing it. We all have vivid recollections as to when the “new” recordings by Los Van Van, Son 14 and the rest of the “new crop” began to trickle in, and we all remember holding our breath, hoping for a miracle.

Although stylistically Emiliano Salvador and Rubén González (the Areito All Stars pianist) were far apart, their roots were the same. Those of us who had heard these musicians, along with countless others, knew that the time was near when Cuban music would once again explode. Most of us had our first exposure to these musicians via the Típica ’73 album “Intercambio Cultural” and later through the bootlegged recordings that kept coming into the states, as well as through the legally acquired sessions on Barbaro Records. We all knew in our hearts that the home-grown Cuban music was unstoppable, and that it was just a matter of time before we would witness first-hand their awesome power. We all believed that there was still hope for a meaningful cultural interchange. And then along came cowboy Ronald Reagan, and threw a monkey wrench in the machinery. It was shortly afterwards that the bottom fell out. Frustrated, the creative minds went underground, ushering in the “dark age” of Latin music. But let’s get back to Emiliano.

He was born on August 19, 1951, in the picturesque town of Puerto Padre, in the former province of Oriente. As a youth he played piano, acordeon and drums with his father and mentor, Emiliano Salvador Sr., who directed a “jazzband” (the name given in Cuba to the big band orchestras patterned after those of Basie, Ellington and Dorsey). They were known as Los Perversos (the perverse ones), and along with the big band of Chepín Choven they attained much popularity throughout the eastern region of the island. In the mid-sixties Emiliano received a scholarship to study with the Escuela Nacional De Arte (National School of Art) in La Habana, where he excelled as a percussionist and a trap drummer as well as a pianist. He studied instrumentation, orchestration and composition with Fred Smith and Leo Brouwer, and furthered his piano studies with María Antonieta Henríquez.

It’s my guess that Emiliano’s quest for individuality probably began the very first time that he sat down at a piano. No doubt that during those formative years he must have come under the strong influence of musicians whom he admired, for various reasons. Each one must have contributed some element to Emiliano’s development. Icons not only of Cuban popular music but also jazz players who eventually helped to shape his style and define his musical direction. At some point these influences coalesced, so that by the time that Emiliano recorded the aforementioned album, his personality both as a soloist and composer were fully formed. As individual as he may have seemed on the surface, Emiliano’s approach was nevertheless, pluralistic. He harbored two distinct personalities, which at times differed greatly and at times differed only slightly. This “dualism”, if you will, had been nurtured by those early influences and fermented during the course of time and experience. Technically, the abilities that were exemplified on either side of his musical experience were kept in perfect balance, and one side never overshadowed the other in meaning. He may have been a visionary, but he was also an incurable romantic, enamored with the simple beauties of life. The vivacious curves of a woman, the colors of the Cuban sky, or the opulence of the land were his inspiration. Take for example “A Puerto Padre Me Voy”. Upon hearing these sounds and listening to Pablito’s interpretations, some of us began to question the established categories and labels. “Salsa” was no longer a valid term for us. La Cubanía had come of age.

About thirty years ago -before there was ever a “Nueva Visión”- for Emiliano and his contemporaries there existed the symbiotic Grupo de Experimentación Sonora del ICAIC, spearheaded by Leo Brouwer, Federico Smith and Juan Elósegui, among others. The type of experimentation that was taking place within this group may have been ambiguous at first, but it was nevertheless very enriching in terms of elevating Cuban music. Noel Nicola, who was studying ethnology with the Academia de Ciencias (under Argeliers León), Sergio Vitier of the Orquesta de Música Moderna and Eduardo Ramos of Sonorama 6, as well as Martín Rojas, one of the founders of the Nueva Trova and musicians Carlos del Puerto, Changuito Quintana and Rembert Egües were some of the protagonists that early on had begun to re-shape the way that Cubans played music. Such was also the case with Emiliano, who changed the way that pianists in Cuba played. While most Latin pianists in the states clearly hung on to the rootsy style of Peruchín and Lili Martínez (there were some exceptions), Emiliano transformed the pianistic tradition in Cuba. Out of this school came Gonzálo Rubalcaba, Ernán López-Nussa and a few others, all very important. Others, like Chucho Valdés had obviously preceded Emiliano, and of course before Chucho there was the very innovative “Peruchín” Justiz. No doubt other players inspired him as well, such as Dámaso Pérez Prado, Frank Emilio Flynn and Bebo Valdés. After he thoroughly studied, absorbed and digested the various styles of these masters, Emiliano did what was expected of any great Cuban musician, he broke out with his “own thing”, creating a whole new school of piano along the way.

The collective work of the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora del ICAIC paved the way for new forms of composing, arranging and communicating ideas. Internal conflicts soon became evident, and some of the founding members moved on to other projects. By 1978 it was no longer a working unit. While the group became known primarily for their film scores, they also served as a workshop, a catalyst for the talents of the individual players. Emiliano was one of those who benefited greatly from his association with ICAIC. Subsequently, he became Pablo Milanés’ musical director and arranger, and together they worked at “El Gato Tuerto”, a favorite nightspot in La Habana of the avant garde “feeling” movement, which was a jazz-tinged style of song more akin to the bolero than anything else. He soon found himself in much demand, the accompanist of choice to the island’s top vocalists, recording and traveling extensively during those years. It was a very rigorous schedule, which may have eventually taken its toll on Emiliano. Quietly and without much fanfare, he went back to the place of his birth to “chill out” and work on his “new vision”.

A second LP was issued in 1980, titled “Emiliano Salvador 2” which featured “Changuito” Quintana, as well as other notables. His newly formed group was by now the favorite at the legendary concerts titled Los Festivales de Jazz Latino Plaza, in La Habana. Two more albums were released, “Emiliano y Su Grupo” (1986) and “Una Mañana de Domingo” (1987), which was later re-released in Europe under the title “Con Fé”.

Throughout the next decade Emiliano and his group traveled about, visiting Central and Eastern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, Latin America and Canada, as well as Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. By the time that the nineties had rolled around, Emiliano had achieved the recognition that he so richly deserved. As they say in the business, he had finally arrived. He was now at the center of it all, a human catalyst for the prodigious “new sound”. Emiliano Salvador now found himself in the heart of jazzlandia, but his heart was still back in Oriente, in montunoland.

Upon listening to Emiliano’s montunos for the first time it became quite obvious to me that he had deep country roots and that he had clearly absorbed some of the natural beauties of rural life, but aside from that, he was also a restless innovator, never fully satisfied with doing the same thing the same way. He was constantly revising the standard repertoire and improvising on the chord changes, both basic ingredients in the jazz idiom. He could be as moody and as audacious as any North American jazzmen could. One moment he would be as ferocious as a wild beast and the next moment as graceful as a swan, if he so desired. Of course the support that he received from within his musical unit should not be overlooked. All these factors merged and the result was not merely fingers tinkling on a keyboard, but a strong sense of unity, a musical force that has not been duplicated in Cuba since his passing.

The scope of Jazz has widened greatly since Emiliano’s last recording, “Ayer Y Hoy” (1992) and there’s no doubt in my mind that had he lived he would have continued to grow musically, improving tenfold and drawing inspiration from many sources, blending and adding certain elements that were not present before, while never losing sight of the source, la cubanía. The experience gained with the ICAIC experimental group, coupled with the many years of listening to great North American jazz players, such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner had taught him this. He walked a fine line between the worlds of Cuban music and Jazz, and the end result was spectacular. Reaching one’s zenith as an artist is a slow process that can be as stormy as making the transition from adolescent to adult. Emiliano’s musical maturity was on the brink of crystallization, and it was stalled by his untimely death. During the last few years of his life, his popularity had begun to ascend to phenomenal heights. But he also had some very troubling and personal problems. By the time that he recorded his last album, constant bouts with alcoholism had been chipping away at his lifeline. How ironic that he would select Arsenio’s beautiful melody “La Vida Es Un Sueño” with its prophetic lyrics “la realidad es nacer y morir… porque llenarnos de tanta ansiedad… todo no es más que un eterno sufrir… la vida es sueño, y todo se va”. On October 22, 1992, Emiliano had lunch, and shortly afterwards decided to take a nap. During that sleep, he suffered a heart attack and died.

Emiliano Salvador was a true Cuban original, an innovator and a visionary who shared the stage with some of the world’s greatest players. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Jack De Johnette, Freddie Hubbard, Larry Coryell, Bobby McFerrin, Carla Bley, Manhattan Transfer, Jimmy Rowles, Eddie Daniels, Steve Swallow, Jimmy Smith, Bobby Watson & Saxophone Quartet, Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Chico Freeman, Kenny Kirkland, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Ismael Miranda, Milton Nascimento, Nana Vasconcelos, Dave Valentín, Louie Ramírez, Airto Moreira, Chico Buarque, and MPB 4. He will truly be missed, even by those of us who never got to know him personally. I never met him, but he touched me with his music. And that is enough. How about you? Did he touch you with his gift? Was he an inspiration for you too?

Chico Alvarez Peraza
New York City – July, 2001

Discography

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